Sunday 18 April 2021

 What Future for the Church?

A piece written for Wraysbury News Magazine in Spring 2021

St Michael's Church Horton: people before buildings?

 Hopefully the woes of 2020-21 will mostly be over by the time this is published and life will have returned to some kind of normality. As I write the Prime Minister has just announced that the roadmap leading to these sunny uplands shows that we are still on course. The Percy and the George should be opening in a week’s time for those who are happy to eat and drink outside. But what is the Church going to be like in these new conditions? Will there even be a Church? And how might it be different?

One of the things that changed during the various lockdowns is that very much content went on line. It was a challenging experience. We had to learn how to Zoom, to livestream, to upload and download, and to become YouTube Creators! Virtual Church went out on Facebook and WhatsApp, and our clever members bravely ventured into the digital world and picked up dozens of new skills.

With all this came questions though. Are we still the Church if we are not meeting and worshipping together? For me there is a qualified yes. The feeling grew strongly on me, that the same God who is present with me on one side of the computer screen is also present with my sister or brother on the other side. The risen Lord Jesus is now in heaven and is not bound by the restrictions of time and space. All times and places – and people - are before Him, even under lockdown, in the great NOW of eternity.

For that reason I was open to celebrating communion over the internet, that is, I bless bread and wine at my end and people then share it with me using their own bread and wine at the other end. This was controversial. I was told to expect to face a disciplinary measure and that my theology was out because communion can only be valid if the people are physically gathered in the presence of the consecrating priest. However I believe that it is the Lord who is the host at His table, not the vicar: that it is He who consecrates bread and wine; that to focus only on material factors undermines participation in the heavenly life of Jesus and the spiritual sharing that is our joyful inheritance. Of course I would far rather that we could all meet and share communion together – but the question is what to do when this has been banned. I felt it was cruel to deny God’s people the comfort of His sacrament when they most needed it, and when I learned that people were just doing it anyway, were taking bread and wine together with the Bishop in the online communion put on by our Diocese itself, I applauded their good sense and got on with it.

The powers that be in the Church of England tell us that digital Church is here to stay, even when in-person church resumes. We are discovering new members online, people who turn up on digital services who we don’t see in our physical services. We also always have people who would love to be with us in church but can’t, because they have become frail or are unwell, or not able to drive any more, because they are away on business a lot or need to give 24-hour care to a family member. So we will go on connecting with people into the future, using whatever means are available, including digital ones. However there are all sorts of things to be worked through, for example: what is the quality of discipleship when we can engage simply by “liking” a post, or watching a video for a couple of minutes or even leaving it playing while we make a cup of tea? How do we foster a corporate identity with people we don’t physically meet? And what becomes of the Church of England’s parish system when we have viewers from the Midlands, Yorkshire, Scandinavia, Canada, the USA…? And how can clergy, already in many cases struggling with multiple churches, find the time and energy to take on an additional virtual church as well? When we give time to nurturing our digital congregation, how can it not be at the cost of reducing the time available to our physical parishioners? But for now we are just very grateful that technology has given the means to communicate with people at all…

As a vicar it is impossible not to be aware of the terrible human cost of the pandemic. There have been many funerals, some of them of people whose lives and contributions to our community are celebrated elsewhere in this issue. Not a few have been a great shock to the families concerned because those who died appeared to be in the pink of good health. It has been tragic to become aware of these sudden shocking bereavements, of people not allowed to visit a dying parent because of the restrictions, of deeply grieving people who have been excluded from funeral services because of strict limitations on attendance. For what it is worth your local churches have been labouring in prayer for those who are struggling with such heavy burdens. Good Friday has been especially poignant for me this year as we have considered afresh the sufferings of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, going through the terrible suffering which was the cost of His loving identification with us. If you have ever asked, “Where is God in all this?” - start here.

2020/21 was also really hard on those planning to be married. Long cherished plans had to be abandoned as weddings were either banned altogether or restricted to tiny numbers – who wants to celebrate what should be the best day of their life with just a handful of others present? Some faced the heartbreak of repeated postponements as hoped for relaxations of the rules did not materialise, others lost their incomes to Covid and had to cancel altogether. It was awful. At the present moment couples are cautiously starting to re-book. Let’s hope we have a summer of joyful weddings in store.

But the more we have missed each other, the gladder we have been to come back together and meet once more in person. Our churches finally resumed Sunday worship before Easter. Although our instincts were to shout from the rooftops that we are back in business at last, we had to keep a low profile because we were still under restrictions on numbers and we didn’t want to find ourselves forced to turn people away. We had to book in, wear masks, keep social distance, forego wine in communion, and perhaps the most missed, no congregational singing (though we were allowed a choir of up to three, who really lifted our hearts.) It’s all been worth it for the sheer happiness of being together again.

So if the church were to learn anything from these disturbing times, I hope it would be to become a more people-centred, open-hearted and compassionate Church, more aware and more supportive of one another in our struggles. This is surely what the Lord who came to share our flesh and blood, our joys and our sufferings, wants for us. Perhaps we lose sight of His goals when we are preoccupied with our busy programmes, our committees, our overstressed and anxious lives. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to make us stop and ask ourselves what is it that truly matters. “Love God and love your neighbour,” said Jesus.

To this end I share with you the following notice, which I found pinned up in a church in a little country village in Hampshire, back in distant times when holidays were still allowed:

 This Church is Dedicated to the Kingship of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the Head, not the Bishop, not the Vicar, not the Church Council or the people – but Jesus Christ.

All are very welcome through the doors of His house. When you come, forgive the human weaknesses of the people you will find here: it is Jesus Christ who waits to greet you.

Especially welcome are the little children, the sick, the lonely, the unloved, the weak, the confused, the overstressed, the hurting, the worried, the anxious, the abandoned, those whose friendships and marriages have broken, those who are searching for more meaning, and those who cannot understand these difficult times. This is your home. Christ awaits your coming.

Also welcome are the proud, the arrogant, the cynical, the critical and the egocentric, those who are independent, those who are strong and feel they need no help. Don’t kid yourself, your home is here also - you must admit it eventually!

We will not ask for your money. We will not give you a job to do. We will not ask you to hold a coffee morning to raise funds. We will not ask you to restore a building.

We will meet with Jesus Christ and worship God together. We will meet each other’s needs and learn to understand each other. We will shed the burden of all the pretence in our lives and take the risk of being humble and vulnerable.

That’s the kind of Church I would like to belong to.

St Andrew's Church Wraysbury: people before buildings?

Monday 12 April 2021

 Here is a summary of the address given at St Michael's on Sunday 11 April by Vicar Colin: 

The Duke of Edinburgh was a force for stability in a time of unprecedented change. Her Majesty Queen ELizabeth ascended the throne before I was born, they’ve always been there, through the loss of Empire, joining the EU and leaving it again, through the industrial, post-industrial, nuclear, electronic and digital ages. It feels like one of the last reassuring marker posts has gone. Everything else has altered in ways inconceivable…

Prince of Denmark and of Greece, married into a family whose roots are German, Philip was a European. Whatever we may think of the EU as an organisation, Philip reminds us that British identity is connected to our neighbours. As Christians we belong to something much bigger than either the UK or the EU, stretching back 2,000 years and forward into eternity, and embracing billions of people all round the world. Brexit may be arguable on administrative or economic grounds but it can never be defended on the basis of fear or hatred of our neighbours.

Prince Philip was pushing the cause for the environment long before it was fashionable or even widely acknowledged, for example in his decades long presidency of the World Wildlife Fund. Here’s a quote from him about nature and God: “If God is in nature, nature itself becomes divine, and from that point it becomes reasonable to argue that reverence for God and nature implies a responsibility not to harm it, not just for our own selfish interests, but also as a duty to the Creator.”

My daughter is one of thousands of proud holders of the Duke of Edinburgh award. Prince Philip created this and other schemes such as the playing fields initiative because he believed in young people, their energy, creativity and ability to rise to a challenge, and demanded that they be given opportunities to shine.

Prince Philip was of course a war hero, serving in the Royal Navy throughout WW2 and decorated several times over not for who he was but for what he did. Perhaps it was from the Navy that he got his famous - how to describe it? Directness? Bluntness? Brusqueness? Crustiness? He always called things as he saw them. Many people loved him for his honesty. He could never be one of those who says one thing while thinking another.

As she herself testifies, Prince Philip gave unstinting loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen. Selflessly and dutifully he put her needs and concerns, and those of her heavy calling, ahead of his own. This must have been far from easy for a man of vigorous action. In serving her he was also serving his country of which she is the Head of State. He supported many hundreds of organisations because he believed that someone with his privileges should use them to make a difference.

What about the Prince’s personal faith? We don’t know. He was of a generation that was reticent about such things – perhaps too reticent as our silence has allowed the nation to slip into a spiritual and moral vacuum. But we do know that he never demurred from the Queen’s radiant personal Christian faith which is so evident in her Christmas broadcasts and that his personal book collection contains hundreds on the subject of religion. See the third paragraph above for the spiritual values undergirding his high regard for the natural world.

Our reading today, chosen for us by the Church authorities, was “I am the Bread of Life” from John Chapter 6, where Jesus calls people to share with him in eternal life through faith in him. We come to this sad day of national loss shortly after the commemoration of the world-changing events of the first Good Friday and Easter, when Jesus suffered the pangs of death for us and then arose to open the gateway to life forever. So it is in Jesus’ name that we commend to God with thanksgiving our thoughts and memories of our beloved Prince. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

 Easter Reflection: Rembrandt

This Rembrandt is from the Queen’s collection at Buckingham Palace. Here is Mary in the very act of realisation – it really isn’t the gardener! Her hands are still getting ready to anoint a dead body. Her face, full of shock, awe and wonder realises she is in fact dealing with a live Jesus – very much alive! There’s her little pot of spices to anoint him on one side of her, and there’s the reason why it is completely unnecessary on the other. A shaft of dawn light from the left illuminates Jesus in his glorious white robe, but it also illuminates Mary’s face, lit up with this new dawn!

In the cave there are the two angels from the story, sprawled a little nonchalantly over the grave where so recently the body of Jesus lay so very still and dead. One of them raises his eyes in the time honoured gesture that says, “She’s got it at last!”

The picture uses Rembrandt’s favourite chiaroscuro technique, literally lightdark. So many of his paintings have deep pools of darkness so areas of light stand out much more strongly by contrast. Here we have a dark cave contrasting with a bright Easter dawn. A great big pillar separates the two and splits the picture in half: darkness on one side, light on the other. Jesus is the bridge between the two, standing in the light and turned towards it. He is the way out of darkness into light: he is the Resurrection and the Life.

Also caught in the morning sun are the gleaming towers of Jerusalem. But is this a more than earthly splendour? Is this actually the New Jerusalem? For the New Jerusalem is God’s goal and destiny for us, through the resurrection of his Son.

In the picture, Jesus has actually dressed up as the gardener Mary mistakes him for. He has the hat, the pruning knife tucked into his belt, and the spade of a gardener. He’s relaxed, hand on hip, as he says the single word that changes everything – “Mary!”  Rembrandt’s portrayed this holiest of moments as a sort of practical joke! And just possibly the resurrection is the most wonderful cosmic joke: a joke surely on us. All our strivings, ambitions, anxieties, achievements, wealth, self-importance, pride and glory, suddenly swallowed up by overwhelming life and joy! Could we really have taken our doings so very seriously? We tied ourselves up with all these irrelevant things, but now they are as gloriously useless as Mary’s pot of burial spices. Here is the life we were really meant for in all its fulness! And our own futile efforts to achieve it completely by-passed.

And finally there’s the gaze of Mary into Jesus’ eyes, and his into hers. The relationship between Mary and Jesus cuts diagonally across that huge dividing line down the middle of the picture. It is our relationship with Jesus, or His with us, that brings us out of darkness into marvellous light.

Reflection 3: Giotto – Lamentation

The last in a series of three reflections from St Andrew's Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

It’s dark again! This time because it’s evening. There’s been an unseemly rush to dispose of the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals crucified with him before sunset, which marks the start of the new day in Hebrew chronology. The next day would be the Passover Sabbath, the holiest of days, which could not be profaned by touching a dead body.

·       Tenderly holding Jesus’ feet we find Mary Magdalene again, as she was found at the feet of Jesus only days before when she anointed them.

·       All around are the other disciples. Some are saints and have haloes, others are just ordinary people who love Jesus and want to be near Him even in death. Look how the women in particular take his hands in theirs, cradle his head, gaze incredulously into His unseeing eyes wondering how it could even be possible that the Lord of life could have died. Every face is contorted with grief at that particular stage where you just can’t believe it could possibly have happened…

·       This is a picture for everyone who has ever been bereaved, telling us with enormous eloquence that God understands, He has been there, for God too is present grieving over His Beloved Son.

·         The angels above them, with their contorted faces and postures are grieving too. There is a sort of paroxysm going on following the death of Jesus which affects the whole cosmos, human, natural and divine.

·       For nature too is grieving. Look at this bleak, lifeless, almost formless landscape. It calls to mind the beginning of Genesis when it tells us the earth was “waste and void.” This is highly significant for it indicates that the pattern of Jesus’ time since he entered Jerusalem a few days before has been following the way of the Creator of Genesis. He enters Jerusalem on the first day and sets about the work of ministry, as God does the work of creation over five days. On the sixth day God creates humanity: on the sixth day Jesus the Son of Man is destroyed. On the seventh day God the Creator rests, and thus calls into being Shabbat: on Shabbat Jesus rests in the tomb, his terrible work completed. But after that rest, Jesus rises and with him the world is re-created.

·       The rockiness of the landscape also calls to mind the rocky cave where the body of Jesus spend that epoch-changing Shabbat.

·       Finally, there are two more figures, bottom left, in green and white, with their backs turned towards us. Their positioning is odd because they block our full view of Jesus. They are like actors who upstage the main action by standing in the wrong place. They are ordinary people, they have no haloes… What are they doing there? Surely they are there because they represent us. In them, Giotto invites us to come and be part of this picture, to sit with Jesus and grieve, to share in the experience of His death - so that we may also share in His coming resurrection.


Reflection 2: Grünewald – Isenheim altar piece

 This is the second of three reflections used at St Andrew’s Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

·         It’s dark again! This is because of the Gospel writers’ statement that “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land.”

·       So who are these various figures standing around? They are not the mob of Bosch’s painting, nor the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees of the Gospel accounts. Even the two thieves crucified with Jesus have been stripped out. Grünewald wants us to focus firstly and fundamentally on Jesus himself, and then on just a handful of figures in the way they react to his crucifixion.

·       On the left is Mary Magdalen, always identifiable in Christian iconography by her beautiful flowing golden hair – a prostitute redeemed by Jesus. By her side is an alabaster jar, a reminder of the costly ointment she poured on Jesus’ feet just a few days before: but also of the jar of spices she would later bring to anoint Jesus’ body on the day of resurrection. She gazes despairingly into the stricken face of Jesus…

·       Mary the mother of Jesus is uncharacteristically dressed in white – she is normally shown in a blue robe. Is this a shroud she is wearing? She identifies deeply with Jesus in his suffering and death. As Simeon prophesied long before when she brought Jesus as a baby to be dedicated in the Temple, “And a sword shall pierce your own heart also.”

·         Tenderly cradling Mary is John the beloved disciple. This is in reference to the words of Jesus from the cross, thinking not of himself but of other, in the same way that he says, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” so he also says to John, “Behold your mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son.” Among the many other meanings of the cross is the message that we should show compassion to one another as God shows compassion in Christ to us.

·       On the right is John the Baptist. What’s he doing here? He’s supposed to have been beheaded perhaps a year before. Grünewald knows this and shows John in red, for the blood of the martyrs. It’s because John prophesied, saying of Jesus, “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And there is a lamb by John’s feet. There is blood coming from its side and falling into a chalice – the blood of Christ shed for us. John is there to remind us that the cross is the fulfilment of prophecies such as Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22, and also the fulfilment of the Passover Feast with the central act of the slaughtered lamb and its saving blood from Exodus.

·       It is Jesus himself though who is absolutely central. He is larger than the other characters and totally dominates the picture. This is a desperately confrontational painting. Jesus and his agony are right in our faces, demanding to know how we will respond to such graphic suffering. It is personal, it matters what we decided about him.

·       Jesus’ body is twisted in the throes of his last agony. His skin pocked with the savage marks created by scourging with Roman whips, which had pieces of metal embedded in their thongs to inflict maximum pain. Take a look in close up. His mouth sags open, his head is hanging down in utter exhaustion. Unlike the polite tricklings of some artists, there is much blood, from head, hands, side and feet. And just look at those hands, cruelly contorted, beseeching the darkness. Here is the cruellest crown of thorns in any depiction of the cross.

·       This then is crucified servant of Isaiah 53, who was “marred and disfigured beyond human likeness…” This is the agony of Psalm 22 - “I can count all my bones… they pierced my hands and feet…” – in which Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

·       Grünewald has portrayed Jesus as the one who has spent himself utterly for you, who has given everything in love until nothing is left. Now how are you going to respond to him?

 Reflection 1: Hieronymous Bosch – Jesus carrying the cross

This is the first of three reflections used at St Andrew’s Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

Darkness! Bosch’s background is inky black, a reflection on the darkness of the cross, spiritual as well as physical.

Faces! Every kind of face, but with a few exceptions, most of them twisted to reflect moral deformity of various kinds: cruel, arrogant, sneering, angry, malicious, pompous, hypocritical, greedy, fearful, snarling, gloating faces. Are these possibly the seven deadly sins? Are they possibly us – those for whom Christ died? For Jesus is being led out to die, not for the righteous, but for sinners…

The face of Jesus is right in the middle. At first he seems just one among the seething hubbub, lost in this dark eddy of humanity. But then look at his expression, so different:  Patient, humble, submitted to the task He must carry out, calm in the midst of rage. 

Jesus’ face is picked out by the beam of the cross, a great diagonal scything through the mob. Somehow a light seems to be shining along it, gently illuminating his serene expression. The cross that brings such darkness to Him will nonetheless bring light to us.

Simon of Cyrene is above and behind Jesus, his hand and chin lifted in the act of taking up the cross. Cyrene was in Libya, and as an African Bosch as depicted him as a black man. Jesus commanded His followers to take up their cross – the first person literally to do this was black. 

Two other black faces either side of Jesus may be Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus, who are named in Mark’s Gospel. The reason for naming them must be that they were known to Mark’s readers. Bosch is referring to the eye witness dimension of the Gospel’s account.

St Veronica is positioned bottom left – you can see she is holding a cloth with yet another face printed on it. This is the legend that Veronica saw Jesus stumble as he was carrying the cross and came to him to wipe his bleeding and sweating face. The image of Jesus' face then miraculously appeared on the cloth she used. Though not described in the Gospels, the story echoes a Gospel truth, that we are all called to bear the image of Christ, to grow into his likeness, and that we cannot do so unless we walk in the way of His cross. Bosch indicates this by showing her face in the same posture and with the same calm, inward expression as Jesus’ face: and a similar light falls on her face as his.

The two thieves crucified with Jesus are shown at bottom right and top right. Both are being taunted, one snarls back at his tormentors, but the one at top right is grey with fear at the ordeal he is to undergo. He becomes the penitent thief, the one who turns to Jesus at the last extremity: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom:” “Today you will be with me in prardise.”